Serpent Child


We are all of us, for good or ill, the product of our families. Serpent Child is a compelling and scrupulously honest account of one woman’s experience of a troubled family – a family in which parental strife served, sadly, to undermine the nurturing she had a right to expect. It is also a fascinating account of how our understanding of our lived experience can be subject to major revision in the light of growing maturity and the opportunity to meet those close to us at a different time and in a different light. Whilst at times a difficult read, this book is ultimately uplifting in demonstrating the capacity of the human spirit to prevail despite the harm that others may do to us. As a retired mental health practitioner, I read Serpent Child with great interest, and with a clear sense of how valuable it could be for those in the caring professions, casting light as it does on the reality of one person’s experience of a discordant family. Highly recommended for the professional and the lay person alike. [Testimonial for Serpent Child from an eminent retired Yorkshire psychiatrist.]
Video introduction By Anthony Douglas CBE and a reading by the author.

Look Inside (Click thumbnail):


Serpent Child  is the autobiography of Patricia Riley. It describes the life of a child of seperated parents in post war Britain at a time when children were still ‘seen but not heard’ and when even for married parents children were preferably seen somewhere else.

Many children were hurried off to boarding schools, even at a very tender age; and, if they were noticed at all, children could become pawns in harmful, even dangerous parental war games. In an enlightening, at times humorous, and important book, Pat describes a past that is not always past.

‘Children were once viewed as property for the most powerful parent – usually the father. Much of the history of family law is the history of the emancipation of children.

High Court judge Mrs Justice Parker once remarked how children were too frequently weaponised by their parents, and were ‘child soldiers in the separation war’. It has taken family courts and family justice professionals decades to deal with this chronic weaponising and to help children move into a demilitarised zone within or outside of their family.

Patricia Riley’s own heart rending story, although mainly occurring 60 years ago, is a reminder that we have not yet managed to get to grips with the toxic effect of divorce and separation on children, especially where there is contention in the relationship. The book also includes an afterword by Anthony Douglas CBE, Chief Executive of the Children and Families Court Advisory and Support Service, Cafcass.

‘This is an important book about an issue that is rarely covered in such depth, and I wish it every success.’  – Anthony Douglas CBE, Chief Executive of Cafcass, January 2019.


Patricia Riley is the author of Looking for Githa, the biography of the ground-breaking playwright Githa Sowerby


By John Hartley

This book will appeal to those, either personally or professionally, who want to know more about family relationships and, in particular, the long term impacts that these can have on children and young people.

It is a compelling human interest story with twists and turns like a well written fictional drama but it’s not fiction, it is a true story.

This is an engaging book yet it does not shirk from describing the emotional problems that Patricia encountered. It describes a “Tug of war” between her separated parents using, at different times, love and control of their child to achieve their aims. I commend this book to you.

Patricia covers Judicial, Social and Welfare issues and sets out lessons for the authorities to take into account when deciding how to protect children now and into the future.

John Hartley FIoD, FCIM